This post is part of the series designed for anyone who wants to build a home network from scratch, including those who consider themselves uninitiated.
That said, if you’re new to home networking, this is a good place to start. And if you have set up a router before, this piece can be a good refresher.
If you more need more help, the related posts in the box below will provide answers to other home networking questions.
By the way, while I’ve tried to simplify things, this is still a long read. There’s no way out of that since networking is a complicated realm. You should read the whole thing but the Table of Content will help in case you need to find something quickly.
Dong’s note: I originally published part of this post on February 15, 2018, and updated it on March 21, 2022, with a great deal of additional up-to-date and relevant information based on readers’ questions and requests.
Home network basics: It’s wired vs Wi-Fi
A home Wi-Fi network includes wired and Wi-Fi parts. While Wi-Fi requires a bit of imagination, we can easily see the former — it’s the hardware itself.
And in any network, we tend to see the following common parts that you might or might not have heard of — if not, keep them in mind, you’ll learn all about them below:
- A Wi-Fi router: This is the heart of your home network.
- A terminal device: This is the Internet source typically represented by a Cable Modem (for Cable broadband,) an ONT (Fiber-optic broadband,) a cellular modem (4G or 5G broadband,) or any other less common type of Internet connection/service.
- A gateway: A combo device that includes #1 and #2 in a single box.
- A switch: A device that adds more ports to the router.
- Wi-Fi extenders, access points, or mesh satellites (a.k.a mesh points, nodes, etc.): The additional hardware extends a Wi-Fi network.
It’s important to note that not all networks have all items above. In fact, many homes likely have only items #1 and #2 or #3.
But they all have two things in common, the network cable and ports. You can’t run away from those. So, let’s start with them.
Home Wi-Fi Network hardware: Ports and cables
A network port is a hole that you can plug a network cable into — the two just fit.
Physically, these ports all look the same, but they can be different in what they do and in their speed grades. And that brings us to the widely used BASE-T port standard.
BASE-T vs SFP+
This type is known via a misnomer called Registered Jack 45 or RJ45. So we’ll keep calling it RJ45.
On the other hand, the SFP or SFP+ (plus) port type is used for telecommunication and data communication, mostly in enterprise applications. SFP stands for small form-factor pluggable and is the technical name for what is often referred to as Fiber Channel or Fiber.
For data communication, an SFP+ port has speed grades of either 1Gbps or 10Gbps. The older version, SFP, can only do 1Gbps, though it shares the same port type as SFP+. This type of port standard is more strict in compatibility and more reliable in performance.
While physically different, BASE-T and SFP/+ are parts of the Ethernet family, sharing the same networking principles and Ethernet naming convention — Gigabit Ethernet (1Gbps) or 10 Gigabit Ethernet (a.k.a 10GE, 10GbE, or 10 GigE).
Generally, you can get an adapter to connect a BASE-T device to an SFP or SFP+ port. Still, in this case, compatibility can be an issue — a particular adapter might only work (well) with the SFP/+ port of certain hardware vendors.
The BASE-T wiring is more popular thanks to its simple design and flexibility in speed support. Some routers and switches have an RJ45/SFP+ combo which includes two physical ports of each type, but you can use one at a time.
Generally, you’ll find network ports on the back of a router — more below. Looking closely, you’ll note that all routers have two types of RJ45 ports labeled as WAN (or Internet) and LAN.
Most routers include one WAN port and a few LAN ports. The WAN port tends to have a different color or is separate from the LANs for easy recognition. So what do they do?
WAN stands for wide area network, which is a fancy name for the Internet. You use the port to hook the router to an Internet terminal device, like a Fiber-optic ONT, or a Cable modem. (More on these below.)
LAN stands for local area network. It’s generally a port type that hosts local wired devices.
You use network ports to connect any wired devices — including but not limited to desktop computers, printers, and game consoles — to your (home) network.
Devices connected to a router are part of a local network — they can “see” and “talk” to one another.
A router tends to have more than one LAN port. When they run out, you can add more using a network switch.
Dual-WAN vs Link Aggregation
Some routers can simultaneously support two Internet sources, such as Cable and Fiberoptic. That’s a Dual-WAN setup.
In this case, it can have two WAN ports (or turn one of its LAN ports into the secondary WAN) or use a USB port as the second WAN to host a cellular dongle.
A Dual-WAN setup increases your network’s chance to remain online during outages (Failover), or you can simultaneously use the two Internet connections to get more bandwidth (Load-Balance).
Link Aggregation, also known as bonding, is where multiple network ports of a router aggregate into a single connection of combined bandwidth. Typically, you can have two Gigabit ports working in tandem to provide a 2Gbps link.
Many routers from known networking vendors have this feature. You can have Link Aggregation in WAN (Internet) or LAN sides.
The former requires a supported modem. And in the latter, your wired client also needs to support it. Most NAS servers do.
Apart from delivering more bandwidth, a Link Aggregation connection is also capable of failover.
While Dual-WAN and Link Aggregation are both about increased bandwidth, they differ in that the former is about using two distinctive broadband connections simultaneously, while the latter is about combining two identical local connections to form a single fast link.
A switch is a device that adds LAN ports to a local network — the one hosted by a router. In many ways, you can understand the LAN ports on a router as part of the router’s built-in switch.
Connect one of a switch’s ports to a router, and now the rest of its ports will work just like those on the router.
Switch vs hub
Both a network switch and a network hub can add more ports to an existing router. The difference between them is that all of a hub’s ports share the same bandwidth, while in a switch, each port has its own bandwidth.
So a switch is much faster than a hub of the same speed grade. However, you won’t need to worry about which is which since network hubs have now become obsolete.
So, a switch always loses one of its ports to connect itself to an existing network — the uplink. That said, you want to get one that has the same number of ports as the wired devices you wish to add to the network, plus one. Or just get a switch with plenty of ports to spare.
Unlike a router, a general switch doesn’t have its own default IP address. It gets one when connected to a router.
Generally, switches differentiate between themselves by the number of ports and their ports’ speeds — more below. And then, there are PoE, unmanaged, and managed switches in case you’re interested in finding out.
Extra on switches: Unmanaged vs managed vs PoE
You’ll note what type of switch one is via its name. For example, the Zyxel XS1930-12HP is a 12-Port Multi-Gig PoE Managed switch.
So what is managed vs unmanaged in switches?
An unmanaged switch adds more ports to a router, and that’s it. Plug it in, and you’re good to go. All of its ports work equally.
This type of switch is a perfect fit in a home or even an office. In this case, you just need to get one with the number of ports (the more, the better) and the speed grades (the faster, the better) needed.
On the other hand, a managed switch comes with additional networking features, such as VLAN, traffic prioritization, filtering, virtual network, and many more. In other words, you can make the ports do different things.
The more the switch can do, the more expensive it gets — as expensive as tens (even hundreds) of thousands of dollars. And you will need to configure these features manually.
For this reason, generally, only big businesses would need this type of switch. In a typical network, the router is the managed switch. (You can understand a home router is a combo box of a managed switch plus the routing function.)
Using a managed switch for your home might cause unexpected issues if you don’t know what you’re doing. This is especially true when you stack multiple switches on top of one another.
By default, most consumer-grade managed switches work in the unmanaged mode out of the box or can be configured that way.
PoE, or Power-over-Ethernet, is a feature where a switch’s port can power a PoE device via the same network cable. You can find both managed and unmanaged switches with PoE capability.
It’s always good to get a fast PoE switch. However, if your PoE device does not require high speed, such as an IP camera, then a slow (Fast Ethernet) PoE switch will do.
Common network port speeds: Fast Ethernet vs Gigabit vs Multi-Gig
You might have heard of Gigabit. Currently, that’s the most popular network standard speed grade.
Speed grade, by the way, is generally used to classify a device. So, for example, a switch with Gigabit ports is known as a Gigabit switch.
But other than Gigabit, we also have two more speed popular grades, including Fast Ethernet and Multi-Gig. Let’s start with Fast Ethernet.
Fast Ethernet (100BASE-T)
Despite the name, Fast Ethernet is actually not that fast. It caps at only 100 megabits per second (100Mbps) — that’s one-tenth of the Gigabit speed.
Fast Ethernet has another slower mode that’s only 10Mbps. For the most part, Fast Ethernet is slowly fading away, with most new computers and devices supporting Gigabit as the minimum.
But 100Mbps is not that slow, either. To put things in perspective, generally, a character — that’s a letter or a blank space between two words you see on the screen — needs eight bits (or a byte). So 100Mbps means you can deliver 12,500,000 letters per second.
The text on this page you’re reading is made of some 30,000 characters and would require a fraction of a second to transmit via Fast Ethernet. (In reality, the text portion of this page requires a lot more bits to deliver font type, color, and formatting. But you get the point.)
By the way, that 100Mbps is more than fast enough for most streaming services. For this reason, many new streamers, such as the Xfinity Flex, still use a network port of this speed grade.
Gigabit (1000BASE-T or SFP)
Again, gigabit is the most popular wired networking standard right now. A Gigabit connection can deliver 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) — that’s 1000 megabits per second (Mbps), or 125 megabytes per second (MB/s).
At this rate, you can transmit a CD worth of data (some 700MB) in about 6 seconds. Pretty fast.
Multi-Gig (2.5GBASE-T, 5GBASE-T)
It’s called Multi-Gig because it can handle multiple gigabits at a time. There are three Multi-Gig grades, including 2.5Gbps and 5Gbps. The 10Gbps speed grade is also available in some cases.
The term “Multi-Gig” generally refers to a new standard that uses existing Gigabit wiring to deliver faster-than-Gigabit speeds with full backward compatibility.
For example, a 5Gbps Multi-Gig port can also work at 2.5Gbp, 1Gbps, or even 100Mbps, but it can’t connect at 10Gbps or slower non-grade speeds like 3Gbps or 1.5Gbps. Like all connections, the actual real-world rate will vary.
So, does a Multi-Gig port work with a Gigabit port? Let’s find out.
Network cable and port grades
All BASE-T network ports share the same port type. The port itself can host any RJ45 network cable, but the speed will be that of the cable or port grade, be it Gigabit, Multi-Gig, or Fast Ethernet, whichever is the slowest.
Network cables and ports are available in different grades. The most popular is CAT5e, but you’ll also find CAT6a, CAT7, and more. You can plug a CAT7 cable into a CAT5e port, and they will work together at the speed of the lower standard.
If you use CAT5e or higher, which is generally the case, you can generally expect any BASE-T network cable (and port) to deliver 1Gbps (Gigabit) to up to 100 meters (328 feet) in length.
If you need to expand your network farther than 300 feet away, consider putting an active device — like a switch — in between. If not, expect the speed to degrade.
All cable types and grades mentioned above can also handle Multi-Gig — that’s 2.5Gbps or 5Gbps — and even 10Gbps. But there are some nuanced differences between them. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
CAT5e can do ten Gigabits per second, despite conventional wisdom that the grade maxes out at 1Gbps. Generally, fast speed over longer distances is what sets different cable grades apart.
Here is the max length at which each cable grade can deliver 10Gbps:
- CAT5e: 45 meters (148 feet)
- CAT6: 55 meters (180 feet)
- CAT6a/e: 100 meters (330 feet)
- CAT7/CAT8: Over 100 meters. (CAT7 and CAT8 are designed for faster-than-10Gbps applications.)
The higher the number that follows CAT, the more expensive the cable gets, but starting with CAT5e, the number of internal wires remains the same — all have eight wires organized in four pairs. The quality of these wires, their specs, and how the pairs are kept from one another are what set them apart as different CAT grades.
So, for virtually all homes, the popular CAT5e cable will suffice. But it doesn’t hurt to run higher-grade (and more expensive) cables. The only time rewiring is required is when CAT5 or a lower grade is used.
The final speed of a mixed standard setup
While you’ll have no problem plugging network cables of different grades into any port grade, keep in mind that the connection speed is always that of the slowest party involved.
Like real-life traffic, a bottleneck device will impede the final flow rate. Specifically, if you use a CAT5e cable with CAT6 ports, the connection is now of CAT5e grade.
Another example is when you plug a (1) Fast Ethernet device, a (2) Gigabit device, and a (3) Multi-Gig device into a Gigabit switch, the link speeds between them at any given time will be the following:
- Between 1 and 2: 100 Mbps (the fast Ethernet device is the bottleneck)
- Between 1 and 3: 100 Mbps (the fast Ethernet device is the bottleneck)
- Between 2 and 3: 1 Gbps (The Gigabit equipment is the bottleneck)
This final speed rule applies to all network connections, both wired and wireless.
With ports and cable out of the way, let’s find out about the actual hardware pieces of a home network.
Modem vs Router vs Gateway
As mentioned at the beginning, chances are you’ll run into a modem, a router, or a gateway in a home network. Folks tend to call these three arbitrarily or interchangeably, but they are distinctive hardware pieces.
The table below gives you a quick idea of which is which.
|Device Type||Terminal Device||Wi-Fi Router||Gateway|
|Composition||A broadband receiver device that connects to the Internet, often |
a Cable Modem or Fiber-optic ONT
|A router with a built-in Wi-Fi access point|
(including the primary unit of a Wi-Fi mesh system)
|A single device that includes a terminal device and a Wi-Fi router in one box|
|Internet-Related Role||Brings Internet to your home|
(via the service line)
|Brings the Internet from the terminal device to local devices for them to communicate with the outside world|
(via network cables or Wi-Fi).
|Local Role||None||Creates a local area network (LAN) network for devices to communicate internally |
(via network cables or Wi-Fi).
|Maintain a wide area network (WAN) public IP address||Assigns and manages LAN IP addresses to local devices||Both|
|Notes||Easy to replace or upgrade. |
Can connect a single wired device, often the router, to the Internet.
|Need a terminal device to connect to the Internet.|
Easy to replace/upgrade.
Share the Internet connection (of the terminal device) to multiple devices in the network via Wi-Fi or network ports.
|Can connect to the Internet and share the connection to multiple local devices.|
Impossible to replace or upgrade just the terminal or router part, which is often limited in features and hardware capability.
By the way, the modem is just one of many service-specific terminal devices.
If you use DSL or Cable for your broadband, you’d need a modem. But if you use Fiber-optic, then you’d need an ONT. But I’ve seen folks calling these two interchangeably, too. In fact, they might call a router, an access point, a mesh point, or a gateway, a “modem”.
It can get very confusing.
What is a modem?
The word actually is MoDem. It’s an acronym for a device that works both as a modulator and a demodulator. A modem converts computer data signals into those of the service line and vice versa.
It’s fairly easy to identify a modem. It’s a device that always has one service port to connect to the service line, that comes into your home from the utility pole outside and one network port. This network port is where you connect to the router’s WAN port, as mentioned above.
Some cable modems also have a phone jack for phone service, and others might have an additional network port for WAN Link Aggregation, as mentioned above.
But generally, when you see a service port on a device, it has a modem on the inside. Also, check the label; you might find the word “Modem” on it.
Generally, a modem can bring the Internet to just one wired device connected to its LAN port. Since we sure have more than one device at home, we need a router.
What is a router?
Every home network must have one router — and preferably no more. A router always has one WAN (Internet) port to connect to the Internet source.
Generally, you can use a router with any Internet source — any terminal device such as an ONT or a modem — as long as the source has a network port.
But a standard router can’t connect directly to a service line — you need a terminal device in between. If a router has a terminal device built-in, it’s now a gateway or another type of hardware.
On top of that, a router also has a few (usually four) LAN ports for wired devices. Most, if not all, home routers also have a built-in Wi-Fi access point — it’s a Wi-Fi router. Consequently, most Wi-Fi routers have the Wi-Fi access point as one of their roles.
As for how to identify, a Wi-Fi router tends to have a few antennas, though some might have internal ones. But generally, if you look at its label, you’ll see the word “router” on it.
The job of a router is to create a network that allows multiple devices to talk to one another locally. On top of that, it also shares the single broadband connection of the Internet source (the modem) to the entire network.
Physically, a router does this via its LAN ports or built-in Wi-Fi access point — more on Wi-Fi below. Internally, the router’s NAT and DHCP functions take care of the sharing, which I explained more in this post on IP addresses.
A router + Internet receiver (modem) = A gateway
A gateway, or residential gateway, is just a combo device that includes a router and an Internet terminal device (often a modem, but can also be an ONT for certain Fiberoptic services) in a single hardware box.
That said, a gateway will generally have a service port plus a few (usually four) LAN ports. It tends not to have a WAN port.
If you use equipment provided by a Cable service provider, chances are it’s a gateway. In this case, the company technician might call it a “modem,” which, though partly true, contributes to the confusion.
You can also buy a retail gateway. The Netgear Orbi CBK752 is an example — it’s a cable gateway. Considering nobody bothers to use the correct terminology, Netgear actually calls it a Cable Modem Router.
Now that we’ve gone through the visible hardware part of a network, let’s find out about the invisible part, the Wi-Fi.
Understanding Wi-Fi: Distance vs signal strength
The only thing you can see about your Wi-Fi network is the antennas, and that’s only true when you don’t have a router with internal ones. On a mobile device, that’s almost always the case — the antennas are blended in with the device’s chassis.
And then what happens in between those antennas are pure mysteries.
How Wi-Fi works
The details of Wi-Fi can be overwhelming — more about that in this post about different Wi-Fi standards. But the box below will give you the general idea applicable to this post.
Wi-Fi in a nutshell
You have a broadcaster (a router or access point) that emanates radio signals outward via a network name.
Technically this name is called “service set identifier” or SSID. This is the name that can be seen when you try to connect a device to a Wi-Fi network. One broadcaster can broadcast one or multiple SSIDs.
On the other end, a receiver (a laptop or a mobile device) catches those signals, via a particular SSID, using a Wi-Fi adapter to form an invisible link that can transmit data between the two.
One broadcaster can handle multiple receivers at a time — you can use many devices with a single Wi-Fi network (SSID). But a Wi-Fi adapter can connect to only one SSID at a time.
(*) Per the popular and default mode of Wi-Fi, called infrastructure. There’s another mode, ad-hoc, where two Wi-Fi receivers connect directly to each other. Ad-hoc is generally not used.
In many ways, Wi-Fi is a wireless alternative to network cables. In other words, when a device connects to a router using Wi-Fi, it uses an invisible network cable. The length of this “cable” is the router’s Wi-Fi range.
I’ve gotten many questions about the range of Wi-Fi routers. If you have those, click the button below to find out more.
Extra: Wi-Fi range in theory vs real world
Note: This portion of extra content was first published in the post on Wi-Fi standards.
Wi-Fi range, in theory
The way radio waves work, a broadcaster emits signals outward as a sphere around itself — the range is the radius of this sphere.
We generally perceive our daily world on a flat surface. For this reason, hardware vendors often use square footage to show a Wi-Fi broadcaster’s coverage, which is inherently incorrect. However, using the correct cubic footage measurement can be too much for the mind.
The lower the frequency, the longer the wave can travel. AM and FM radios use frequency measured in Megahertz — you can listen to the same station in a vast area, like an entire region or a city.
Wi-Fi uses 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz frequencies — all are incredibly high. As a result, they have much shorter ranges compared to radios. That’s not to mention a home Wi-Fi broadcaster has limited power.
But, regardless of Wi-Fi standards, these bands generally share the following: The higher frequencies (in Hz), the higher the bandwidth (speeds), the shorter the ranges, and the more bandwidth progressively lost over increasing distance.
Generally, bigger Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to have better ranges than smaller ones. Still, it’s impossible to accurately determine the actual content of each because it fluctuates a great deal and depends heavily on the environment.
That said, here are my estimates of home Wi-Fi broadcasters’ ranges determined via personal experiences:
These were determined in the best-case scenario, i.e., open outdoor space on a sunny day. Also, note that Wi-Fi ranges don’t die abruptly. They degrade gradually as you get farther away from the broadcaster. The distances mentioned below are when a client still has a signal strong enough for a meaningful connection.
- 2.4GHz: This band has the best range, up to 200ft (61m). However, this is the most popular band, also used by non-Wi-Fi devices like cordless phones or TV remotes. Its real-world speeds suffer severely from interference and other things. As a result, for years, this band has been considered a backup, applicable when the range is more important than speed.
- 5GHz: This band has much faster speeds than the 2.4GHz band but shorter ranges that max out at around 175ft (50m).
- 6GHz(*): This is the latest band available, starting with Wi-Fi 6E. It has the same ceiling speed as the 5GHz band but with less interference and overheads. As a result, its actual real-world rate is faster. However, due to the higher frequency, it has just about 70% of the range, which maxes out at about 130ft (40m).
(*) Wi-Fi 7 has a new feature called Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) that, when implemented, increases the broadcasting power of the 6GHz band enough to make its range comparable to that of the 5GHz.
Some might consider these numbers generous, and others will argue their router can do more, but you can use them as the base to calculate the coverage for your situation.
Wi-Fi range in real life
Wi-Fi broadcasters of the same frequency band and broadcasting power generally deliver the same coverage.
Specifically, they are all the same if you measure the signal reach alone. What differentiates them is their sustained speeds and signal stability, or how the quality of their Wi-Fi signals changes as you increase the distance. And that generally varies from one model or Wi-Fi standard to another.
In real-world usage, chances are your router’s Wi-Fi range is much shorter than you’d like. That’s because Wi-Fi signals are sensitive to interferences and obstacles.
While the Wi-Fi range doesn’t depend on the channel width, the wider a channel, the less stable it might become — it’s more susceptible to interference.
The new 6GHz band generally doesn’t suffer from interference other than when you use multiple broadcasters nearby. On the other hand, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz have a long list of things that can harm their ranges.
Common 2.4 GHz interference sources
- Other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters in the vicinity
- 2.4GHz cordless phones
- Fluorescent bulbs
- Bluetooth radios (minimal)
- Microwave ovens
Common 5 GHz interference sources
- Other nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters
- 5GHz cordless phones
- Digital satellites
Common signal blockage for all Wi-Fi bands: Walls and large objects
As for obstacles, walls are the most problematic since they are everywhere. Different types of walls block Wi-Fi signals differently, but no wall is good for Wi-Fi. Large objects, like big appliances or elevators, are bad, too.
Here are my rough estimations of how much a wall blocks Wi-Fi signals — generally use the low number for the 2.4GHz and the high one for the 5GHz, add another 10%-15% to the 5GHz’s if you use the 6GHz band:
- A thin, porous (wood, sheetrock, drywall, etc.) wall: It’ll block between 5% to 30% of Wi-Fi signals — a router’s range will be much shorter when you place it next to the wall.
- A thick porous wall: 20% to 40%
- A thin nonporous (concrete, metal, ceramic tile, brick with mortar, etc.) wall: 30% to 50%
- A thick nonporous wall: 50% to 90%.
Again, these numbers are just ballpark, but you can use them to know how far the signal will reach when you place a Wi-Fi broadcaster at a specific spot in your home. A simple rule is that more walls equal worse coverage.
With the understanding of networking hardware above, let’s find out the best way to put them together. Again, a home network includes wired and wireless parts.
Best practice for a wired network
A single router (or gateway) is the only wired network you’d need with many homes. But if you have a larger home or one with multiple floors, it’s a good idea to think a bit bigger.
First and foremost, when possible, it’s best to run network cables around your home. In this case, pick a small room, or a closet, to serve as the IT room. Generally, this room is where the Internet service line enters the house.
From this room, run a network cable to each other room of the property where you intend to use a wired device (including a Wi-Fi broadcaster).
Note that you can’t split a network cable the way you do a phone line. The only way to turn one network cable into multiple ones is via a switch.
Extra: A home network’s hardware connection order
Note: This portion of extra content is also available in the post on Wi-Fi router setup and maintenance.
A typical home network diagram
Generally, in a home network, we have the following:
- The service line: That’s the line coming into the house from the street. It can be a phone line (DSL), a coaxial cable (Cable), or a Fiber-optic line. If you use cellular or satellite, that’d be the line, or a network cable, connected to the receiver.
- The terminal device: This is the Internet receiver. Chances are it’s a modem for a DSL or Cable broadband or an ONT for a Fiber-optic plan, but it can also be any Internet receiver with a LAN port to connect to your router’s WAN port. Most terminal devices come with just one network port. If yours has more, you still use only one at a time unless:
- You use a broadband plan with WAN Link Aggregation (generally available in Cable). In this case, you can use two ports to create a 2Gbps connection.
- You have a plan with multiple static IP addresses — this is quite rare. In this case, you can simultaneously assign one IP address to a specific port.
- Your service provider offers speeds ranging from below to above Gigabit and uses a terminal device with a Gigabit and a Mulit-Gig port. In this case, you know which port to use.
- The Wi-Fi router: That’s the device you need to set up.
- Optional devices: These are additional devices — such as patch panels, switches, mesh satellites, etc. — that help expand the network.
The task at hand now is how to connect all the above together. Physically, they’ll fit as you plug them whichever way, but there’s only one way they’d work properly.
Let’s use the arrow (➡) to represent a network cable or cables and square brackets () to describe optional devices. We have the following simple diagram:
A wired device connects to a network via a network cable. Examples are a computer, a printer, Wi-Fi access points, etc.
A gateway — often the ISP-provided hardware — includes the terminal device and the Wi-Fi router in a single box.
For detailed steps on setting up a home Wi-Fi router, check out this post on the topic.
Get a patch panel
For better management, in the IT room, you should use a patch panel to organize all the terminals of the network cables that go to different places.
A patch panel is generally a collection of network ports, where each port is a keystone RJ45 jack that you punch down the wiring of a network cable’s end.
You’ll note that each port on the panel has a number. Now, at the other end of the cable, use another keystone RJ45 jack and mark it with the same number. Now you know which port goes to which room of your house.
Make sure you get a panel with enough room for all the cables you’ll use. A switch is also necessary if you run more cables than the number of ports on your router.
Of course, you can skip the panel and connect a cable directly into the router, but that’s a bit of a mess.
Best practice for a Wi-Fi network
Before you can have a Wi-Fi network, you must have a wired network, which might just be the router itself. After that, considering how Wi-Fi works, as mentioned above, the following are a few things you should do to get the best Wi-Fi experience.
1. Hardware placement
All home routers use omnidirectional antennas. As a result, wireless signals are broadcast outwardly as a sphere – more like a horizontal ellipse — with the router in the center. So if you place your router by the side of your home, half of its coverage will be on the outside.
Wi-Fi broadcaster placement: Dos
Here are the best places to put your Wi-Fi router.
- Center: As close to the center of the house as possible. Since, in most cases, the Internet drop is at a corner of a home, you can run a network cable from the modem to the router.
- High ground: It’s best to place your router above the ground. If you have a two- or three-story home, put the router on the second floor. If it’s a single-story home, place it on the ceiling or top of furniture, like a bookshelf.
- Out in the open: Avoid putting your router in a closet or behind a large, thick object — such as a TV or a refrigerator. Generally, you want to set the router in an open space.
- Vertical antenna position: That is if you want to signal to go out horizontally. Use the antennas in the horizontal position if you want the signal to go out like a vertical ellipse. Note, though, the antennas’ positions generally don’t matter much.
Wi-Fi broadcaster placement: Don’ts
Here are a few examples of where you shouldn’t place your Wi-F router:
- A closet
- Behind a large appliance like a fridge or a TV
- The laundry room
- A basement that has thick walls or below a thick concrete floor
Hardware placement for a mesh Wi-Fi system
A single router might not cut it in a large home, and you’ll need multiple broadcasters to form a Wi-Fi mesh system. Generally, a single router can cover about 1,800 ft² (170 m²). Each extender (or a mesh point) can extend another 1,500 ft² or so.
In this case, it’s best to use network cables to connect the hardware units. If that’s not possible, consider the following:
- Place the broadcasters of the systems at a good distance (not too far, not too close) one another. Generally, this distance should be about 30 ft (9 m) to 50 ft (13 m) if there’s a wall in between, or up to 75 ft (23 m) if there’s a line of sight.
- Minimize the number of walls or obstacles in between them.
- When there are two or more satellite units, place them around the main router to form a star topology — find out more on this post of mesh systems. You want to minimize the time signals have to hop before they get to the end device.
Note that a wireless mesh configuration is generally not good for real-time communication applications, such as gaming or video/audio conferencing. For that, you should consider getting your home wired or connecting the device via a network cable.
2. Get your own equipment
You generally have more control and a better network when using your modem and router instead of using equipment from your Internet provider.
If you use cable Internet, replacing the ISP-provided gateway with your own also saves you from paying the monthly rental fee.
3. Use network cables when possible
Again, when you need to extend your network, it’s best to run network cables to connect hardware units.
If you have a large home, consider using multiple hardware units connected to the main router via network cables to make sure you get the best coverage and the fastest speed.
When running network cables is not an option, you can try Powerline adapters that turn your home’s electrical wiring into network cables.
Note that a Powerline’s performance varies greatly depending on your home’s wiring and will not work with power strips or surge protectors. On top of that, they are generally much less reliable than network cables and unsuitable if you have high-speed Internet or intend to use Wi-Fi 6.
Figuring out a home Wi-Fi network from scratch can be intimidating at first. Hopefully, that was only for you before this post. Like all things, home networking takes practice and some trial and error.
So get on it, and if you have more questions, the posts in the box below will help. There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to take full control of your home network.